PERSONAL: Born in France.
Members Only (nonfiction), Hutchinson (London, England), 2001.
Us and Them: Understanding Your Tribal Mind (nonfiction), Little, Brown (New York, NY), 2005.
Contributor to periodicals, including New York Times, Slate, Discover, and New Republic.
SIDELIGHTS: David Berreby is a writer whose particular interest is the human tendency to classify people into two groups: those who are like them and those who are not. This "us-them" mentality is very basic to human nature, according to Berreby, who explores the phenomenon in his book Us and Them: Understanding Your Tribal Mind. Looking back through history, the author finds that every society has shown this urge to separate the world into two groups. The "us-them" mindset allows leaders to manipulate peoples' emotions and, thus, their actions. Using evidence from neuroscience, history, psychology, and anthropology, Berreby attempts to explain the mechanism of this human response, and to illuminate why it can be a good or bad thing. The us-them mindset can lead to racial intolerance and the objectification of a whole group of people, yet it can also be the inspiration for feats of heroism and selflessness. Berreby explained in an interview on his home page: "Devotion to Us—our religion, our country, our culture—is the way we find something to live for, bigger than our little selves. Anyway, love it or hate it, a sense of Us and Them is part of being a person. Many other animals would die defending a mate or a child. But only a human being will die for a complete stranger, if that stranger is 'one of us.'"
In his book, the author points out that the question of identity can be complicated by many factors. For example, someone may have a mixed heritage, may grow up in a place other than where he or she was born, may convert to a new religion, or learn a new language. Groups with which one identifies can overlap and even be at odds with each other. This is possible, he notes, because these identifications come from within the mind rather than from any physical, genetic source.
Reviewing Us and Them in Library Journal, Lynne F. Maxwell remarked that Berreby "amasses an astonishing quantity of research on stereotyping and the human need to categorize." She further found the book to be a significant study of belonging and not belonging, and called Berreby's ideas "intriguing but demanding." A reviewer for Publishers Weekly similarly held that Us and Them is "impressively well-researched," yet added that, despite the depth of Berreby's study, it remains accessible to many readers because the author "has a casual and conversational style that makes even his most complicated points straightforward and commonsensical." The reviewer concluded that while Berreby might not present any groundbreaking new information, his book is an "entertaining" look at a very important field of study.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Kirkus Reviews, August 15, 2005, review of Us and Them: Understanding Your Tribal Mind, p. 891.
Library Journal, September 1, 2005, Lynne F. Maxwell, review of Us and Them, p. 162.
Publishers Weekly, August 22, 2005, review of Us and Them, p. 54.
David Berreby Home Page, http://www.davidberreby.com (November 14, 2005).
David Berreby Web Log, http://davidberreby.typepad.com (November 15, 2005).
Time Warner Bookmark, http://www.twbookmark.com/ (November 14, 2005), autobiographical article by David Berreby.